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Lake George and the Village of Caldwell, ca. 1850s

Lake George and the Village of Caldwell, ca. 1850s

Thomas Chambers (1808 – 1866/69)

Born in England to a merchant sailor and a washerwoman, Thomas Chambers became a painter known for landscape and marine scenes, especially of the Hudson River from Albany and from New York City, all in naive, primitive style with bold color, rhythmic shapes, and strong contours applied with brush-work that made his work seem vital and lively. He differed from most painters of primitive style because, influenced by his decorative style, he used large, rhythmic shapes with light and shadow instead of flat forms. And he certainly differed in style from the Hudson River School of Painting that, influenced by European painting, was becoming active at the time he started his career in America. In that era, some persons were disdainful of the Hudson River painters as being too influenced by Europeans, but in the 21st century, reportedly “Chamber’s cartoon like energy and rhythmic sense of design continue to appeal to modern taste”. (Foster)

Of the artist, it was written in a 2008 exhibition catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art that he was “a self-taught artist who operated in the zone between folk and fine art (and) was this country’s first modern artist.” (Foster) This designation was supported by a 1942 exhibition catalogue title of his work, T. Chambers…First American Modern.”

Little is known about much of the life of Thomas Chambers. His given birth and death dates are estimates with both 1808 and 1815 listed for him, but 1808 has become the accepted date. It is known that he came to America in 1832, likely without formal art training, and became a naturalized citizen. About that same year, he went to New Orleans where he signed a declaration of intention to become a citizen there. From 1834 to 1843, he was listed in the New York City directory and advertised in the City Directory as a marine and landscape painter and restorer of old paintings. The ad read: “Fancy painting of every description done to order”; from 1843 to 1851 in Boston; and then in Albany and back to New York City. He may have lived beyond 1866, but it is thought he returned to England and died there.

Among the titles of his Hudson River paintings are Staten Island and the Narrows (Brooklyn Museum), Villa on the Hudson near Weehawken. (New York State Historical Association)

Some of his most dramatic paintings were naval battles of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. He also did portraits, but none of them have been found. Much that is known about his artwork comes from knowledge of prints made from his originals.

From September 29, 2009 to March 7, 2010, the American Folk Art Museum held an exhibition of his work entitled Thomas Chambers (1808-1896): American Marine and Landscape Painter.

Sources include:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Kathleen A. Foster: Thomas Chambers (1808-1869, American Marine and Landscape Painter
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
John Howat, The Hudson River and Its Painters

Biography from the Archives of AskART